The old rope-a-dope.
Two seasons ago, Minnesota was the worst Big Ten team in the Kenpom Era (non-Rutgers Division). The team won just 8 games that year and, to paraphrase Skip, how did they ever win 8? To add insult to injury, the Gophers were not just terrible on the court—the team's final regular season thumping was at the hands of the aforementioned Rutgers, in which Richard Pitino started Stephon Sharp and played him 33 minutes. Why? Because there was a sex tape scandal that led to the suspension of 3 players. This season was just about as ugly as it gets.
But Minnesota completely overhauled the roster with a massive talent upgrade. In came transfer Reggie Lynch, one of the best shotblockers in the country, along with impact freshmen Amir Coffey and Eric Curry. For a quick comparison, Sharp played 16 minutes all season. The Gophers went 8-23 two years ago, and at the end of last year's regular season they stood at 23-8.
Most of the gains were felt on the defensive side of the ball, where Lynch's presence could not be denied. As expected, he led the conference in block percentage, swatting nearly 15 percent of all two-point attempts while he was on the floor. The comforting presence of Lynch also enabled Minnesota's guards to pressure on the perimeter, limiting opponent's three-point attempts (Gophers ranks 2nd in opponent 3PA%).
While the defensive performance was not one without some flukiness (1st in opponent free throw percentage), as long as Lynch patrols the paint it should be above average, and probably even better than that.
Offensively, however, Minnesota was not good. And maybe that's why there's reason to be optimistic this season. There was no great mystery to Minnesota's offensive sluggishness—the team couldn't shoot. And to put a finer point on it, Nate Mason, who attempted nearly a third of the team's shots while on the floor, couldn't shoot.
Mason's outside accuracy is probably best regarded as "fine." Last year was his best season shooting from the outside in conference play, at a passable 34 percent. However, the 6-2 point guard seems to be under the impression that he is capable inside the arc. He is not. Mason converted just 39 percent of his 2s in conference play last year, and in this sport that qualifies as "terrible." That's especially bad where Mason devotes over two-thirds of his shot allotment to those 2s.
Mason's shot distribution is actually trending in the wrong direction, since he was a freshmen. It seems that as he shoots more, those added shot calories come exclusively via two-point attempts.
So one of two things needs to happen for Minnesota to improve offensively (and thus, improve on last season):
- Nate Mason suddenly becomes more accurate
- Nate Mason shoots less
I'm not sure which of those is more likely, but I'll take them in turn. With respect to accuracy, undoubtedly we'll see some improvement. Although Mason shot more 2s than ever last season, it was still a personal worst in accuracy with those shots. And frankly, 39% is pretty close to as bad as it gets for rotation players that attempt more than a handful of 2s over a season. So we'll see some regression to the mean. But Mason needs more than a regression adjustment for Minnesota to get right. Most plausibly, he would need to reverse a 3-year trend of attempting more and more two-pointers. And I suspect that isn't happening.
"Shooting less" is therefore a far more enticing option. But basketball shots are kind of zero-sum: someone has to take them. Whatever Mason doesn't shoot, someone else will, or else the unforgiving shot clock demands a turnover. So who might take those shots?
One candidate might be Jordan Murphy. We've already seen him shoulder a heavier shot load, as a freshmen. But, maybe that's why Minnesota might want to avoid that here. Murphy performed great, for a freshman, but when he dialed his shots back as a sophomore, his two-point percentage went from 50 percent to 58 percent. And while one might attribute that to a sophomore leap, it's curious that the only other substantial improvement came in free throw rate—a statistic also tied to shot selection and shot volume. And besides, Murphy's attempted 73 three-pointers in his career, making just 13 of them. I'm not sure the man can be trusted with a "shoot more" directive.
There are, of course, a number of alternatives, but the one the media seems to be honing in on is rising sophomore Amir Coffey. Coffey was a heralded recruit, and he performed well, showing an ability to do a little bit of everything. He handled the ball like a combo guard, made over 40 percent of his 3s, 48 percent of his twos, got to the line and rebounded...err, don't ask about that. But, it's quite possible that Coffey was able to do all these things so well precisely because he received the kind of defensive attention a player gets when they shoot just 17 percent of the shots while on the floor. And while it's true that top-100 players do often grow into alphas, for every Kemba Walker there's a Jake Layman and Jordan Hulls. And even talent requires opportunity—and the Gophers aren't losing much from last year's team (just Akeem Springs and Curry to injury).
So I don't see Coffey suddenly rising to the 1st team stardom that's being predicted by some. But he should increase his usage at least some. If Murphy can similarly increase his shot volume "some," as well as Lynch and incoming freshman point guard Isaiah Washington proves to be ready, then this Gopher team can build on last year's counterpunch.